The war in and around Gaza is a catastrophe unfolding before the eyes of the world. At the same time, much remains hidden. However, the images that reach us do show how the unrestrained violence threatens and destroys the lives of countless people. Their fate touches us and raises questions that cry out for answers. But where are answers to be found when conversation is drowned out by the din of violence? To still enter into that conversation, Freedom Lectures in cooperation with FOTODOK, Openbare Bibliotheek, the Liberation Festival Utrecht, and the Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam Foundation brought people together on 30 October at the library on the Neude in a special episode of Freedom Lectures. The aim was to overcome confusion and discord in a safe environment, and exchange experiences and ideas. The central theme was the meaning of freedom and peace for everyone involved in the struggle.
Discussion leader Oscar Kocken introduced the participants to the podium conversation: spoken word artist, philosopher and theatre-maker Lev Avitan, lawyer and researcher Lydia de Leeuw, journalist and political scientist Radi Suudi and Arabist and anthropologist Leo Kwarten. The introduction was given an extra dimension by the opening contribution of FOTODOK director Femke Rotteveel. She had talked to all participants beforehand about the core of their contribution. Based on these conversations, she selected an appropriate photo series and introduced it to the sold-out theatre hall and the speakers.
Anton Kusters, The Blue Skies Project, (2028), installation-view.
In The Blue Skies Project, Anton Kusters made polaroids of the blue skies at the exact coordinates of the 1078 concentration camps in Europe between 1933 and 1945. A typewriter was used to add the number of victims per camp in addition to the coordinates.
The blue sky connecting everything. As Anton puts it in an interview, “By photographing the same blue sky everywhere, I transpose the trauma to our time and at the same time this sky creates an all-evening modesty. We turn away from what is around us, from what may still be visible of the horror. The blue sky as the great equaliser and the viewer having to search for meaning himself.”
Tanya Habjouqa, Occupied Pleasures, (2012/13).
In the colourful series Occupied Pleasure, Tanya Habjouqa captures everyday activities in the West Bank. Yoga in the open air, broad ‘hunks’ in a gym, picnics on the beach. Palestinians are people like you and me. We are often shown mostly one-dimensional images that dehumanise the Palestinian people. Imagery plays a big role in this conflict. Professor Laleh Khalili says of Occupied Pleasures: ““We also need imagery that captures the poetry of everyday life, and not only the prose of strife.”
Khalid Raad, Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, Israel (tussen 1898 and 1914).
Khalid Raad‘s photographs show Palestine before the Nakba in 1948. An area with over 700,000 residents with lives like those of our own (grand)parents. With a studio on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, Khalid captured these people and daily life between 1895 and 1948. Most of the footage from this period is in military Israeli archives and is not accessible. It is the life’s work of Israeli curator Rona Sela to bring out this material. An arduous road. Her book Made Public and documentary Looted and Hidden give insight into this process.
Ofir Berman, Along the Separation Wall, (2022- ongoing).
Ofir Berman is working on her long-running project Along the Separation Wall. In it, she records life on both sides of the 708km-long and 8-metre-high wall. She is able to do this because she has the Israeli passport that gives her these freedoms in addition to the right contacts. The area has various residence papers that greatly affect your mobility, among other things. She quietly captures daily life in the distinctly physical places. For the connoisseur, the location immediately reveals insights, for instance that settlers always live on the top of the hills and Palestinians in the valley near the water.
Oscar Kocken asked participants to respond to the photo stories, allowing the audience to learn about their personal involvement. This immediately highlighted the importance of multi-voicedness and mutual respect. Images have the power to perpetuate conflict, but alternative images can actually inspire different thinking and mutual understanding. One visitor commented afterwards: “It was as if with the pictures and explanations the room was calibrated which allowed us to listen to each other in a different way.”
Based on their experiences, participants in the conversation contributed diverse perspectives on how peace and freedom hung together. Spoken word artist Lev testified impressively how even in the small circle of family and relatives, blockages could arise in the conversation about the clashing worlds. He shared his story of the hushed confrontation between the mother who had served as a conscript in the Israeli army and the son who had chosen the Palestinian side. Lydia de Leeuw, who was still in Ramallah in the West Bank on 7 October, shared how she had experienced the shock of Hamas’ attack that day. She highlighted the Israeli counterattack from the perspective of the humanitarian law of war, which prohibits the uninhibited victimisation of civilians explicitly. Using the photos Femke had selected for him, Radi Suudi recounted his Palestinian family history and the world lost due to the creation of the state of Israel. He has participated in dialogue tables of Dutch Jews and Palestinians since the 1980s. Despite everything, he sees no alternative but to continue with such initiatives. Finally, as a scientist, Leo Kwarten advocated sticking to a rational approach to the problem. That does not mean, incidentally, that he envisaged a solution to the conflict, other than a change of the failing leadership (‘all bastards’) on both sides to restart peace talks.
The conversation was defined by consideration and empathy for the victims and the search for prospects for freedom and peace for the future. Right now, the priority can only be to end the fighting and organise large-scale humanitarian aid. On the other hand, there are grave concerns about what the government of Israel’s long-term goal is – possibly a completion of the 1948 Nakba, in other words an expulsion of the population of Gaza and annexation of the West Bank. Lydia de Leeuw pointed to the standards set by international criminal law for the conduct of warring parties in wartime and expressed the hope that these would actually be enforced at some point. Discussion leader Oscar Kocken provided the conversation with urgently needed oxygen by questioning the participants as lucidly as empathically. He concluded an evening full of testimonies of anger, worry and sadness with the difficult question of bright spots and a little hope. “We cannot afford to give up hope,” everyone argued. This left much food for thought on the need to follow up this activity.
Written by: Peter Romijn